Hair uncovered? Makeup? You're a prostitute

Some say the effort to push Indonesia toward Islamic law unfairly restricts women.

Published June 27, 2006 7:01PM (EDT)

The scene described in today's New York Times article reads like lines from a prequel to "The Handmaid's Tale." Lilis Lindawati was waiting at a bus stop in Tangerang, Indonesia, wearing makeup, pants, a jean jacket and slight heels, and had her hair uncovered. She was picked up in a police van, charged with prostitution and sentenced to spend three nights in prison. But Lindawati maintains that she isn't a prostitute and has filed a defamation suit against the town's mayor.

"Charging someone on the suspicion of prostitution is not enough under the national law. You cannot arrest someone for just being in a vicinity. They have to have attempted a crime," said Dedi Ali Ahmad, chairman of Jakarta's Indonesian Legal and Aid and Human Rights Association.

Some have taken incidents like this, along with the adoption of sharia law in several districts, as a sign of a push toward Islamism in Indonesia. The result, women's activists say, is a hyperfocus on modesty and intense scrutiny of women's dress. Reports have surfaced of women being fined in Aceh for wearing an ill-fitted head scarf; others have reportedly been whipped for going out in public with a man other than their husband. Also, as Broadsheet has written about before, hugely restrictive anti-pornography legislation is currently being challenged in Parliament; the Times reports that the bill would "impose a one-year prison sentence for women wearing miniskirts and five years for couples caught kissing in public."

What's hopeful, and yet confounding, is that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is known for his commitment to tolerance and a secular government. But moderates say that Yudhoyono has had too temperate of a reaction to grass-roots extremists and is overly concerned with offending some Islamists.

It seems appropriate to offer Margaret Atwood an apology for my scoffing so incredulously when I first read her account of an imagined police state where all aspects of women's lives are controlled -- from their dress to reproduction. You can almost see Atwood reading this story -- or others like it -- and shaking her head with a knowing, sardonic smile.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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